I’m Just A Freak!: In Conversation with Mary Timony and Laena Geronimo

The Ex Hex and FEELS frontwomen talk accepting your weirdness ahead of their US tour.

Mary Timony has helmed legendary indie rock bands like Helium and Autoclave, and currently fronts the DC-based rock group Ex Hex; Laena Geronimo, previously the bassist of the ‘60s-inspired pop-rock quartet The Like, is now the frontwoman of the LA garage band FEELS. This spring, they’re touring together in support of their bands’ respective new albums It’s Real and Post Earth. Here, they meet via phone and discuss their new records, the importance of mystery in rock and roll, and what it was like to be raised by art punks.

—Annie Fell, Associate Editor, Talkhouse

Laena Geronimo: It’s really nice to finally meet you — or at least your voice!

Mary Timony: It’s good to meet you too, finally! I’m excited for our tour together. And for your record—it’s coming out this week, right?

Laena: Yeah, it’s coming out on Friday [Ed. note: Post Earth was released 2/22]. We just received the vinyl too — we were just holding it in our hands for the first time yesterday. We’re like proud parents right now, like, “Oh my god, there’s never been a more beautiful record!”

Mary: That’s a good feeling. Like, “Oh my god, it’s here!” It’s so nice to have something that’s tangible to hold. It just feels more real, for some reason… Because it is more real, I guess. Is this the second record for FEELS?

Laena: Yeah. And you guys just released a record, right? Or is it not out yet?

Mary: No, same thing — it’s our second record. It comes out at the end of March.

Laena: Where did you guys record?

Mary: Well, the story is, we recorded a version of our record — we had this crazy idea to record all the drums isolated. [Laughs.] Like, a totally harebrained idea. It sounded cool, but it was just insane and took way too much editing, so we ended up throwing out [that] version of our record and then going to this studio in Baltimore to record basic tracks over again. We did that for, like, a week, then we did most of the record in my basement. We did some overdubs up there again at Magpie Cage [Studio], but, same thing with the first record, we did most of it on our own.

Laena: Wait, real quick, I gotta say: Having a basement — being from Los Angeles — that’s such an amazing thing to have to practice in. [Laughs.]

Mary: Where do you guys practice?

Laena: We have to pay for a practice space. It’s a giant, factory-esque building in Downtown LA. We’ve had a practice space there for years. We don’t mind — we love it, actually. It’s on the fourth floor and it’s overlooking this kind of industrial wasteland. There’s a train that passes sometimes, and the LA River. It’s actually kind of inspiring, but it’s not in my basement.

Mary: Well, actually, we can’t play in my basement. We can only do quiet stuff because I live in a row house and my neighbors can hear, so it’s not as good as it sounds.

Laena: Basements don’t even exist here. I think it’s an earthquake thing?

Mary: That’s wild. I’m not a West Coast person, so I didn’t really know that. So where did you guys record?

Laena: We recorded in Northern California with Tim Green.

Mary: Oh my god, I know Tim Green! The coolest. I am such a huge Champs fan. I actually have known him since I’ve been, like, 14, probably, just from around. He was in bands when I was in high school, and Nation of Ulysses — I was in this other band at the time, and we played together.

Laena: I’m friends with Ian [Svenonius] too. I was just talking to him about how we’re doing the tour with you guys, and he was like, “Oh, Mary! You have to say hello!” I keep running into people who know you and they’re like, “Say hi to Mary!”

Mary: [Laughs.] Wow, it’s all meant to be!

Laena: Our worlds are colliding.

Mary: Our worlds are getting connected, it’s awesome. So how did you like recording with him? He’s amazing, right?

Laena: Yeah, it was such a pleasure. He’s just zero bullshit. There’s no tiptoeing around, [he’s] very direct, which I always appreciate. You know, “Don’t talk to me before 1PM under any circumstances.”

Mary: Whoa, did he lay that down when you guys got there? [Laughs.]

Laena: Yeah, he had a list of 10 rules that were posted on the wall. I was like, “Alright, respect!”

Mary: What were the other rules?

Laena: Don’t leave anything on the ground, because he has a dog that will pee on everything [Laughs]. Things like that. Honestly, it was a real pleasure and I really appreciate him.

Mary: When you say “no bullshit” — like, he had his own things he was specific about, but what about when you were recording? Did he have rules about how he liked things to be done when you guys were recording? Like, how many takes you do, and stuff like that?

Laena: Not really. We’re pretty efficient though, too, so we didn’t push him too much. We didn’t really put him in a position where he’d have to be like, “Alright, we can’t do 4,000 takes.” Our last record, we recorded the whole thing in one day, so to have eight days to just live in this cool compound in the middle of nowhere and just focus on recording was super luxurious to us. And we had put a lot of effort into all of the pre-production before we got there, so we knew what we wanted to do. It was really super smooth sailing. We spent the last two days mixing.

It was so cool to be away from our normal lives and record — it was the first time we had ever done that. Have you ever done that?

Mary: Yeah. I mean, I’m pretty old, so I’ve done a lot of different records a lot of different ways. When I was in my 20s, I was in this band Helium and we would just take forever to record, and had budgets enough so we could hang out at a studio for a long time.

Laena: That is so awesome.

Mary: It was fun, but then I’ve also made records for no money on my own, so I kind of feel like I’ve done both extremes of taking forever in a studio — maybe too long, and pissing off the producer because we were never finished—and then just like, “OK, we’re making this record on my laptop,” or whatever.

Laena: I’m definitely familiar with your previous projects. I didn’t want to dig into that too much because I’m sure you’d rather talk about what you’re doing now, but do you mind if I ask: In the ‘90s, there was a lot more money in the music industry and I feel like labels were willing to take chances with weirder, more experimental, less guaranteed-money-maker, pop-hit type stuff. Do you feel that way?

Mary: I think what happened was, when Nirvana got really big, there was this whole wave of major labels trying to find the new Nirvana. So there were a few years where they were taking risks on bands. There was still the whole indie label thing where you just made a record for, like, $500 — that happened more too.

I think what’s happening now is, there’s so many bands, so many labels, so many ways to do it, and it’s easy to get a record out. But I know what you’re saying — it didn’t feel like that, but maybe you’re right.

Laena: I can’t imagine being in a band where they’re like, “OK, you’re going to be in a studio for a month, just write a record.” That would be so cool!

Mary: We’d have budgets that weren’t huge or anything, but somehow I would just finagle a way to do it on the cheap. One of our records did have kind of a big budget, and we definitely spent it all. We were not saving. We definitely didn’t get smart about, “Well, this is the only money we’re ever going to make. Why don’t we save half of it?” Instead I was just like, “Let’s spend it all and hang out in the studio and make food!”

Laena: I guess there’s always an up and a downside to everything. Like now, it’s so easy to record your own record, and you can put it on the internet and anyone in the world can access it, which has never happened before. But then on the downside, there’s such a saturation of stuff out there that it’s really hard sometimes to break through that.

Mary: Definitely, it’s wild. I don’t know what to make of it. I don’t know how to navigate it all now.

Laena: I don’t think anyone does. I think everyone’s just kind of, like, got a machete and they’re hacking their own weird way through the jungle.

Mary: Maybe it’s just me living in DC, but I feel like every band feels like its own little entity now. Whereas in the ‘90s, it felt like, “This is my town! We’re from DC and this is what we’re doing here!” Things are less localized now. I really feel like before the internet, there was this local scene, and you lived in a town and were part of this thing — especially being from DC with the whole Dischord thing, it really felt like that here.

In a way, I feel like musicianship has gone up. Like, people are typically a little bit better musicians now. I don’t know if that’s just me making that up, but I feel like in the ‘90s, there were a lot of really bad bands.

Laena: [Laughs.] Totally, the internet really has changed music so much. I kind of envy those days of like, “I’m part of the scene, and we make zines, and call each other on the phone!” [Laughs.] But at the same time, it’s amazing that you can reach people all over the world now.

Mary: It’s incredible. It really is.

Laena: It’s really allowed music to become this niche thing, where I feel like there’s so many subcultures that have their own, “This is the best! My favorite band!” And everyone you know has heard that band, but then you meet someone else who’s interested in a different subculture and they’ve never heard of anything you’re into, and you’ve never heard of anything they’re into. It’s not like when you could only hear music through the radio station and there’s, like, ten different groups — now it’s so diverse, and no matter what you’re into, there’s people all over the world who are finding each other who are into the same stuff.

Mary: You can find out about anything. But at the same time, like you’re saying, it’s hard to reach a lot of people. It used to be that there was structure — like, “These are the major labels and there’s only ten of them.”

Laena: To go back to the idea of individually hacking your own way, maybe back then there was a more clear pathway. Now it’s like, who knows — maybe you’ll make a music video that goes viral. There’s so many weird ways that come up out of nowhere.

Mary: It’s like, put your cat on Instagram, then people will like your record! Or get into a Twitter fight with Cardi B, or something.

Laena: There’s no rhyme or reason.

Mary: But I feel like the thing that happened in the ‘90s — and maybe somewhat in the ‘80s too—the whole thing that happened after punk was, “We don’t like your whole system of getting signed to [a label], so we’re going to do it ourselves.” When I was in my early 20s, that was the whole thinking: They’re the mainstream, and they have their whole way, but we don’t give a fuck about them, so we’re just going to do it ourselves. The idea of signing to a major label was so lame. Basically, there was the subculture and there was mainstream culture, and you just chose which thing you were gonna try to do. But anyway, times are different.

Laena: I just want to bring up the whole idea of mystery in rock and roll. Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when rock and roll really began, rock stars were so mysterious — they just had this mystique and this otherworldly nature, and that was the whole thing. Like, “David Bowie’s not even a human!” Now, you’re posting what you ate that day. It’s so interesting how that has changed. I still hold onto the idea that there’s strength in mystery.

Mary: Yeah, absolutely. But what do we do? It’s gone.

Laena: Everyone has a phone, anyone can take pictures of you doing whatever and post it on the internet, and then it lives there forever. You have to be so much more careful about what you say and how you present yourself. I’m really curious about what you think of all this.

Mary: I’ve kind of gone to this place in my brain where I’m like, well, there’s really no turning back. I do know a few people who don’t have smartphones and don’t text and don’t really check their email, but you just get cut out from things, so that’s not really an option. It’s really disappointing, I think. I love when things are more in our imaginations.

Laena: You’re able to feel like it’s much larger than life.

Mary: Yeah. I find, in general, that being connected to the internet all the time, I spend less time imagining things and probably less time being creative. Now in order to be creative, I have to decide it, whereas before, I was just bored more, probably. You’re right, and I think kids growing up with the internet are not gonna even have these thoughts. Their whole brains will just evolve around the way things work now. I think we’re in a weird place, because we’ve seen both sides of it. I don’t know how old you are, but I definitely have.

Laena: I didn’t have an iPhone until I was in my early 20s. I didn’t have Facebook in high school.

Mary: Yeah, so you’ve seen both sides. It’s an interesting place to be straddling both sides of this whole situation.

But, yeah — how do you get the mystery back? I don’t know.

Laena: I think on one hand, I have heard the argument that back in the day, a lot of times the way women were presented as entertainers or musicians was out of their hands. It was kind of chosen for them, the way record labels wanted to sell them. A lot of times, that was in a way that they didn’t want to be presented, necessarily — they were hypersexualized. Now you can curate the way that you want to be presented, so that’s really positive, I think. I think a lot of people, even though they have the option to not objectify themselves in order to try to sell whatever they’re doing, just do, because it works.

Mary: That’s true.

Laena: When you post a picture of a sexy girl on the internet, a thousand people will like it, but if you post a picture of an art piece you did that day, probably maybe 50 people [will]. You can’t deny the fact that sex sells, but I don’t want people to like my art because of my physical [appearance].

Mary: Yeah, that’s not a good feeling, to be seen that way. Men don’t have to do that exactly.

Laena: I just treat myself like I’m a man, essentially.

Mary: So do I, oh my god. What I’ve definitely noticed is: There’s so many more women playing in rock bands that it’s mind blowing. In the ‘90s, there was nobody. It felt so powerful just to be a woman in a band. It was such a masculine thing, but now it’s pretty normal and that feels really good.

I guess I’m saying, I noticed it more then — women being portrayed as sex objects — and it pissed me and everyone I know off. The whole riot grrrl thing came from that. It’s strange to see women choosing that for themselves.

Laena: They have every right to do it, but it’s just interesting. I can’t help but want to understand the psychology of it.

Mary: Oh man, it’s so complicated and we’re definitely not going to figure it out today, but it’s good to think about it [Laughs.] Now you’re getting into how people see themselves, how they want other people to see them — how we take on these stereotypes.

Laena: We’ll have weeks on tour to continue talking about that.

Mary: [Laughs.] “So how are you feeling about human psychology today?”

Wait, so I want to ask you some questions. How did you start playing music? How old were you when you started playing an instrument?

Laena: Well, my dad is a musician —

Mary: I know! Your dad [Alan Myers] was in DEVO, which is incredible. Did he make music seem fun to you when you were little?

Laena: Definitely. I mean, my mom also had a band that she started when I was two, that my dad actually played in after he quit DEVO.

Mary: What band was that?

Laena: It was called Babushka but they never actually released anything, sadly.

Mary: Was that after the Kate Bush song?

Laena: My mom’s from Romania, so it’s more of a legit reference. But she also loved Kate Bush, so I don’t know!

But she was a singer, and my dad’s a drummer. My parents were both sort of weird art punks — my mom had a mohawk when I was born, and our house was filled with instruments and they practiced in our living room.

Mary: That is so cool. I can’t even imagine.

Laena: I don’t know of a time before I started playing music. But my mom was telling me the other day that my dad was really insistent that the only music I heard for the first year of my life was old jazz, like Billie Holiday. I guess he would hold up a speaker to my mom’s belly when she was pregnant with me and play Thelonious Monk and stuff. He was really into experimental jazz, and classical, and music from India. I actually was raised listening to a lot of music from India.

Mary: That’s so amazing! So when did you start playing an instrument?

Laena: There’s a picture of me playing guitar when I’m, like, four or something. I started playing violin in school when I was in fifth grade, and I took classical lessons with that until I was 25; I still do session work with that. I played guitar in a jazz band in my high school. I actually did a little internet stalking on you —

Mary: Oh yeah, I did on you too! [Laughs.]

Laena: You also play viola, is it?

Mary: Yeah, I started on viola when I was 9 or ten, and I sucked really bad. I teach guitar to kids now, and I find that kids that have music in their home generally get pretty into it, but I feel like maybe because my parents weren’t super into music, it just didn’t click with me.

Laena: Everyone sucks on those instruments when you start.

Mary: It’s the worst.

Laena: It’s the worst! It’s the most masochistic instrument. My parents didn’t force me to get into it or anything, but I was just one of those kids who, because my family was so chaotic — obviously there’s dark aspects to my parents being crazy art punks — I definitely sought structure wherever I could find it.

Mary: That’s so interesting that that’s what got you into music! It totally make sense. So practicing, in a way, was like freedom for you, almost?

Laena: Yeah, I definitely dreamed of, like, white picket fences and thought I was gonna be a lawyer that protected the environment or battered women. Obviously the apple didn’t fall that far from the tree, as it turns out, but as a kid I was like, “I will never date a musician! I will be the most normal person ever!”

Mary: Holy shit, that’s so fascinating.

Laena: What was your upbringing like?

Mary: It was exactly the opposite. My family did all the right things in terms of providing for the kids. My dad was a judge for the Federal Trade Commission and my mom was a teacher, and they were really good about providing us with, like, going to good schools. I love them, but they’re definitely not interested in music at all. The only music they listen to is classical radio stations, so they were very confused by my brother and I getting into guitar. It was the typical thing: it was rebellion for my brother and I. It was our world that we found, so it was my way of getting away from them. It’s so interesting that the opposite happens when your parents are musicians.  

Laena: Well, it didn’t take long for me to end up like [them]. Mid-way through high school, I was like well, I’m a freak.

Mary: That’s amazing. What made you realize that you liked to be creative?

Laena: I just realized that I could never be normal.

Mary: Aww.

Laena: I tried really hard and I couldn’t be accepted by normal kids. I was always really weird. I was always artistically inclined — my mom was an art major in school, and she comes from another country, and she had zero American influence embedded in her, so she’s a wildly creative person. If you spilled something on the blanket and it stained, we would just draw over it with markers. I tried really hard to fit in, and I just realized that I never would and kind of embraced that.

Mary: I feel like I got to that point in my 30s. I always felt guilty for playing music. My mom was super supportive of me taking music lessons, but then she was completely confused by me being in a rock band. She never knew what this music was, or any people who did it. So I think until I was in my 30s I just felt fucking shitty about being in a band. I was always like, it’s something I’m doing, but I really should be a teacher. I really should get a real job. I finally came around to being like, it’s just fucking me and I’m just a weird freak. Like you were saying, I’m just a freak! And I’m just going to go with it. But it takes a while sometimes, to accept your inner freak.

Laena: Me accepting myself as a freak didn’t necessarily mean I was accepting myself as a person at that time or anything. I definitely went through an extremely self-destructive nihilistic phase — I was this super punk kid who hated everyone and everything, including myself. It’s been a long process.

Mary: You know, that’s part of life. I don’t know who’s got it figured out.

Laena: At least with music, you find other people who feel similarly to you. When you feel like you’re alone, that’s the scariest feeling, because you could be the weirdest scariest person, but if you are at least around some other people who are like that too, you’re like, you know what? I’m fine. I’m gonna be fine.

Mary: I think that’s so true. I’ve heard other musicians say that, and I’ve definitely felt it. For me, going to see punk shows when I was in high school was the only time I felt like I was connecting to people, and I felt normal. I didn’t feel bad or like I didn’t belong.  

Laena: The comfort in that chaos that is difficult to explain — even now, I’ll go see a really good punk band and it’s the happiest, safest feeling. I don’t know how to explain that.

Mary: There’s definitely something to that, for sure. We could have gotten into cosplay or something. [Laughs.] I was watching a movie about cosplay and I kind of relate to those people so much! They’re like, inventing this world, and they all have these shitty ass jobs and are miserable at work, but then they create this other world and that’s where they’re their true selves. But anyway, I’m glad we got into music and not cosplay.

Laena: And you know what? Touring is one of the most chaotic ways to live your life, but to me it’s the most relaxing time. It’s so much more relaxing to me than being at home.

Mary: Really? No way.

Laena: It’s just so simple.

Mary: I know what you’re saying — you have a structure, every day you do exactly the same thing. That makes sense.

Laena: There’s no big decisions to make. No which of the things that I’m supposed to take care of do I deal with right now?

Mary: You’ve got a job, and you’re doing it, and you’ve gotta go from point A to point B, and do your show.

Laena: And just live in the moment. There’s something so freeing about that to me.

(Photo Credit: left, Michael Lavine; right, Shervin Lainez)

Mary Timony is the lead singer and guitarist for Helium and Ex Hex and previously played in Wild Flag. Ends With And collects Helium’s singles and compilation tracks and is available now from Matador. Catch Mary on tour playing Helium this summer and follow her on Twitter. (Photo by James Smolka.)